Coatesville resident addresses state lawmakers

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Debbie Willett (second from left) is joined in Harrisburg by Karen Brenneman (from left), former director of the Family Outreach Program at Child and Family Focus, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy agency; Rep. Tim Hennessey, who invited Willett to speak; and Deb McKinley, a grandparent from the support group.

Debbie Willett, who runs a GrandFamilies support group in Chester County, spoke in Harrisburg on Wednesday, May 7, before the state House Aging & Older Adult Services Committee and the House Children & Youth Committee. Here is the text of her presentation:

Good Morning. My name is Debbie Willet. I live in Coatesville, Chester County. Thank you for the opportunity to share with you some struggles that grandparents and aunts and uncles have when they decide to step in and raise the children of their relatives. I am a single mom of 12 children; one by birth, 10 by adoption, and my 6-year-old  granddaughter who I have had since she was 22 months old. I work as a Family Support Partner at Child and Family Focus, Inc., supporting families who have youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Years ago, little did I know when we began adopting children with special needs that it would become a multi-generational experience. My oldest daughter suffers from fetal alcohol effect, due to her birth mom consuming alcohol while she was pregnant.

When my granddaughter  was 19 months old, my daughter packed them up and moved to Texas. Within a few weeks, Child Protective Services became involved when my granddaughter was found wandering in an apartment parking lot unattended. My daughter told me of the incident, and I spoke with the case worker. I shared that if they felt my granddaughter had to be removed from the home, to please call me as I would fly to Texas and bring her home with me.

Texas Children, Youth and Families (CYF) began offering support and services to my daughter, but after a few months, there was no change and they contacted me, saying if my daughter and I could come up with a private agreement for me to take my granddaughter to Pennsylvania, they would not have to place my granddaughter in foster care. Prior to this call, I had checked to see what I would have to do to get her out of foster care if she was placed in the system. Although previously I had been a foster parent for many years, I was told I would have to take a current class to be considered a foster parent. That could take several months. I found temporary guardianship papers online and took them with me to Texas. The CYF worker took my daughter and me to a notary, and we signed the papers. The papers were good for three months.

Even though my granddaughter was safe with me, I was impressed that Texas CYF continued to work with my daughter to gain the skills needed for her to be reunited with her daughter.   When the papers expired in three months, I had to have my daughter re-sign. For a multitude of reasons, she never re-signed consent.   I contacted an attorney to see how I could get custody. I was told that in Pennsylvania, my granddaughter would have to be in my care for 12 months before I could apply for custody. To make a long story short, I was finally able to get full legal and physical custody – after hiring legal help.

During that time several other grandmothers who were also raising grandchildren and I began speaking with the leader of the local Post Adoption Support group, which is where we all originally met. The need for a support group was confirmed and in a collaborative effort between our county Department of Children, Youth and Families, Department of Aging, Mental Health/Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities,  and Child and Family Focus, Inc. we started the Grand Families Support Group. From the beginning the group was and continues to be well-attended, with attendance growing each year.

Chester County is a System of Care County. At one of our System of Care advisory meetings, I shared about the new group. Our head of the Department of Human Services suggested having a Representative come and speak with the group. So on May 1, 2013,  Rep. Hennessey visited with our group. We shared a Power Point with many statistics. He said he would take what he learned back to this group. We are so thankful that he did as he said.

Just in our small group alone, there is a variety of reasons why grandparents and aunts and uncles are raising the children of relatives. Incidents like incarceration, unemployment, mental health and drug & alcohol issues, divorce, long term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, out of state child protective services, parental poverty and neglect, death of a biological parent, nieces and nephews in the foster care system, and domestic violence. Based on one report, 8.6% of all Pennsylvania children live with grandparents or other relatives which is 239,819 children in PA.  What the grandparents would like me to share with you are some struggles and concerns that they have on a daily basis.

  1. Most of the grandparents do not qualify for the services of the Department of Aging because we are not old enough. We need somewhere or someone we can turn to for guidance and support.   It has been years since our own children have attended school, needed medical attention, etc., and the services have changed so much since then. The grandparents feel a peer advocate to help them navigate the many systems our grandchildren are involved in would be a tremendous help. Someone who has walked in our shoes, not someone who has read about our lives, and not experienced what we live. Someone who can connect us with supports and services. Someone who understands the emotions that we feel.
  1. The biggest concern is financial. For the few grandparents who are retired, they are on a limited budget, and add the cost of one or more grandchildren into the picture, and you can see that their retirement years are not what they had envisioned.   Many of us work full time and do not have day care allotted in our budgets. If our grandchildren were living with their biological parent, the majority would qualify for subsidized child care; but our incomes are too high for that. We would like to see the biological parent’s income be the deciding factor for daycare, not the grandparent’s income.
  1. When a family receives full custody of their grandchildren; even if the custody is awarded through Kinship Care through CYF, at any time the parents can petition the courts to have the custody agreement modified. Most of the biological parents can receive help from Legal Aid to try and regain custody of their children. This is not true of grandparents. We need to spend money, from our retirement, etc. to pay for legal fees to protect our grandchildren and give them some sense of stability and permanency. The only way we can give our grandchildren a permanent place with us is to petition the courts for adoption. If our adult children are not willing to allow their rights to be terminated, then they must be declared unfit and have their rights terminated.   That puts the grandparents in a terrible position. We are made to prove that our own children are unfit to raise their children. What we would like to see is something similar to the Safe Family Acts where after a grandchild has lived with their grandparent (or other relative) for a set amount of time, that they can feel assured this will be their permanent home.
  1. Most grandparents do not receive child support because of the instability of our grown children; they may be incarcerated, have mental health or drug and alcohol issues. Many do not keep a job very long. One of our grandparents has received $70 in six years for her grandson; and that is in addition to no presents, clothes or food from his biological mom.   This same grandmother ended up losing her home of 20+ years because she was unable to keep up the mortgage payments because she had to pay daycare in order to work.
  1. Food stamps: We would like to see the biological parent’s income considered for this service as well. Some of our grandparents are raising one to three teenage grandsons. We all know how much food teenagers can eat.
  1. Due to the chaos and trauma some of our grandchildren have experienced while living with their parents, many suffer from mental health issues. Raising a child with special needs can be exhausting. A foster parent receives monthly respite for the children she is paid to care for in addition to a monthly clothing allotment. In many instances, the grandchildren cannot get mental health or medical services if the parent doesn’t sign consent for treatment and some parents are nowhere to be found or refuse to sign due to mental health, or other reasons.
  1. Also our social life is dramatically changed. Other adults our age do not have little ones to bring with them on an adult outing. We lose many of our friends as we do not have the time, energy, or finances to do what we used to do. This is another reason we would like to have some respite options.
  1. An area that can cause a lot of strain is when our adult children still live in our home with their children. I had one grandmother share with me that she was able to have her granddaughter on her health insurance, but when her grown daughter turned 26, her daughter and granddaughter were removed from her insurance. Because her daughter did not see the importance of having a job and supporting her daughter, the daughter also did not see the need for insurance. So grandmom was watching this all play out, with no power to access health insurance for her grandchild.

In closing, it is my hope that this brief summary of these daily struggles and concerns will provide you with a better understanding of the important and often unmet needs of those who have chosen to raise the children of relatives. Again, thank you for this opportunity, and thank you in advance for considering these unmet needs in your future planning and decision making.

Editor’s note: The Chester County support group meets for six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall. The last meeting for this session is Wednesday, May 14, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, contact Willett at 484-238-4594.

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